The Cardboard Conundrum

This is not a travelling or a National Park post.  It’s 100% Parenting.  Is that “Blogging Taboo?”  I’m fairly new here so I’m just going to play dumb and write about what I want.  Skip it if you must.  Today is about cardboard.  I was actually going to publish this last week, but decided to follow my “think before you write” rule and held off until I was less… frustrated.

If you walked into my youngest daughters bedroom you would find (in addition to the blankets on the floor, haphazard stacks of papers heaped in the corners, grubby pencils thrown on every surface, and random assorted piles of junk) the following items: cardboard stables, cardboard tack rooms, cardboard tack bins (w/cardboard lids), cardboard dog kennels, cardboard fences, cardboard silos, cardboard storage rooms, cardboard wagons, cardboard cross ties with posts, and even a cardboard “pasture.”

Yes, Arwen is what we affectionately call, horse-crazy.

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Spring 2013 – Arwen and Secret

Before I go on, let me just say that what she’s done is… magical.  Yes, magical.  For the past year she has quite literally created for herself the world she wants to live in, and she does live there, allowing us non-cardboard village dwellers an occasional visit.  It’s very creative and sweet, and yes, I’ve fallen in-love with her community too.

BUT…but.  Do you realize how much trash is created when you save trash, to cut up the trash, to make new trash, which is just saved to make more trash?  The room is a perpetual pigsty.  Really, there are only so many cardboard cut-outs, paper scraps, unraveled yarn, material scraps, and grass clippings that one room can hold.  The first time she made a cute little tack room out of a shoebox, I thought it was amazing! Adorable!  Incredible!   This was a year ago and I couldn’t have known where it would lead.  Could I?  I’ve always known she had the heart of an artist, but not until this year did I realize she also possessed my insuppressible need to take the simplest tasks to unconscionable levels of “overboard.”

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Now I’m scared to buy anything that comes in a cardboard box, which let’s face it, is almost everything.  Half cut-up cereal boxes continue to litter her room and granola boxes get stacked in a corner to “save” with all the extra bits and pieces she’s cut out and “might” need.  It’s trash people.  Piles of trash.  My daughter’s room looks like the neighborhood reclamation center.  One time, she actually asked me to stop at the gas station to buy her a can of Pringles potato chips just so she could dump them out and use it as a grain silo.  In hindsight, I should not have acquiesced to this.  As soon as she had that silo she was out cutting up dried grass and leaves from the yard to use as hay and oats.  Yes, I’ve allowed my daughter to actually carry up piles of grass into her room.  She replenishes it when her horses have eaten it all.  What??  She is now stocking four silos.  I finally had to put my foot down when I discovered “cardboard” water barrels in her room. This whole situation has gotten completely out of hand.

Scotch Tape.  How often do you really need it?  Sporadically at best, right?  Maybe a torn letter here, a birthday present or a school project there.  Not us.  I’m buying BRICKS of it from Costco.  Do you know how many rolls of Scotch Tape come in a brick?  Twelve.  And we are always, ALWAYS, out.  It disappears into the black hole of Arwen’s room where clutter goes to rot.

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So, what to do?  I’ve tried to be really nice and lull her into cleaning.  I’ve tried being mean mommy and forcing her to clean for hours despite a continual flood of tears.  I’ve even tried just giving in and doing it myself, but she comes home and within 60 minutes the room has reverted to it’s natural state of mess.  The one time I reached a breaking point and actually tried to (God-forbid) take out the trash?  She was reduced into such a helpless state of hysterical sobbing that I actually went out to the cans and hauled the trash back up to her room myself.

Do I really nix the cardboard and associated scrap to buy her all the shiny plastic junk toys that will just clutter up her room in another manner?  No, probably not.  The fun for her is in creating it, and I know I couldn’t create a cardboard wagon with spoke wheels and a driver’s bench.  I did try buying her a beautiful wooden barn with hand-crafted stable doors and detailed hinges from a craft festival once.  She uses it for storage now.  I’m not kidding you.  It’s filled with rolls of tape, scissors, accessories that don’t fit into her cardboard tack shelves (yet) and piles of yarn, which she uses to fashion bridles and reins.

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Here I am, a year into this “stage,” with no end in site.  My already seriously debilitating lack of patience has been tested beyond reason.  The constant mess is DRIVING ME C.R.A.Z.Y!  There, I said it.  Yelled it to the world actually.  Now, perhaps I’ve coerced another year of patience from my inner Neat-Freak who knows that everything has it’s place and likes to “remind” household members of this rule on a pretty consistent (daily) basis.  In the meantime, I’ll just  resist the temptation to open her bedroom door every so often.  And when I can’t resist?  I’m going to try to focus my neat-freak blinders on her amazing creations instead of the interminable debris explosion.  This stage too shall pass, no doubt perpetuating all the nostalgia as the ones before it.  After all, life is short, but childhood is even shorter.

More travel posts are in the works… Happy Trails.

~Cassie

Anything BUT Scrapbooking

Aaahhh… we’ve come to the end of another summer.  I guess technically it’s not for a few more weeks, but school (finally) starts in three days so I’m counting it the end and welcoming in my favorite of all seasons… Autumn!  I hope you have all found enjoyment travelling with your family this summer, and if so you probably have a positive avalanche of digital photos that you’ve faithfully transferred off your phone or camera and left sitting on the computer, waiting for that elusive day when you have enough time to organize, file, edit, print and catalog them into your favorite album or scrapbook.  Yeah right.

I hate… Hate… scrapbooking.  It is my least favorite of all mommy jobs.  Yet, I continue to save pages and pages of their school work every year, I keep every team photo and concert program, and yes, I continue to collect thousands of pictures, desperately trying to preserve the moments that are ever more quickly slipping away from me.  Thirteen summers?  I’m now officially down to three for Aubrey and nine for the twins.  Ugh.  Though I can’t do much to help with the school papers and concert programs, I wanted to share what I use to preserve the digital memories of our summer trips.

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Many of you have probably already heard of Photo Books and are using them regularly, but I wanted to share this idea just in case you haven’t come across it yet.  I hadn’t heard of it until last year during a visit to Illinois and I saw the photo books my cousin had created that chronicled the first year of life for her newborn.  They were beautiful!  And what a convenient way to use all the digital photos we have instead of actually sending out for printed copies and then storing them in traditional photo albums.  Thanks Ginny for the idea!

I plan to use the photo books for all my photos, but I especially love them for our summer road trips.  I’m a faithful customer of Shutterfly.com.  They have hundreds of beautiful templates so you can pick a theme or style to make each book unique for each trip.  And they are so easy to make!  You just upload the photos that are already on your computer, drag and drop them into any layout you want, and then write comments or stories anywhere on the page to describe your photos.  You can customize the front and back cover with photos, and there are all kinds of various “scrapbooking” stickers and details with which to further customize your pages.  Furthermore, the process of creating a photo book online goes fairly quickly without the paper and glue and scissors and “scraps” of traditional scrapbooking.

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I like being able to create the book once and then order as many copies as I like.  I’ve ordered one of each trip for each child so that they have their own photo albums with which to remember our travels.  I’ve even ordered some for grandparents and other family members.  They make great Christmas presents!  I also like these books because unlike bulky photo albums, they are very neat and compact and take up very little space on the shelf.

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So, I realize that this won’t take care of all our scrapbooking projects, but if you create a Photo Book and keep the Trip Binder for each road trip, then I would call this project Done!

Wishing everyone a very smooth transition into the new school year and a very beautiful Autumn!

Happy Trails!
~Cassie

Paradise

Aloha!

We returned from our 5th Annual Summer Road Trip Vacation last week and now that I’ve had a few days to get the lawn under control and shuffle through a heaping pile of mail and email, I just wanted to write a quick bit about the land of Hawaii before it’s lost to me in a sea of memories tethered only by the photographs.  Yes, our National Park project finally brought us to nani Hawai’i – a combination of our family summer vacation and our 15th Wedding Anniversary celebration.  It was a special one this year, and it took us a long time to get here, but I think that’s ok.  Great even.  Sometimes it takes a long time to know that nothing that comes at us in the future could be harder than our past, and that we really are in it together, forever.

Andy, I’m so glad it was you.

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Anniversary in Hawaii, 2013.

I don’t think anything in my future could ever match the… spectrum of the last fifteen years, and I found those contrasts paralleled in Hawaii.  Please forgive the repetition for those well-versed Hawaiian travelers, but this was my first time to the islands and it obviously made an impact.  Though we only checked off four more National Parks on our countdown this summer (two in Hawaii and our last two in California), they were big ones, and worth every penny and every effort of getting there.

Hawaii is a land of contrasts:  her newest and blackest shores are birthed in the East each day from Pele’s fiery belly, while her oldest, reddest, westernmost soils rust away under the constant barrage of wind and rain and sun.  In between, she takes the shape of sharp pumice stone and delicate orchid petals, of craggy, soaring peaks and submerged coral reefs, of lush rainforests in the North and arid deserts in the South.  Her colors range from the darkest of grays to the brightest imaginable spectrum of the rainbow.  Her highest summits break even through the clouds and stand sentinel over the ocean waves crashing the beach below.  A sun-kissed man with a flowered shirt and deep creases about his eyes weaves baskets from palm leaves and speaks of ancient legends to the throng of tourists sporting Nikon cameras and Patagonia garb.  Her deceptively small islands of Paradise above the surface hide her source of great power beneath the sea, power that can not only withstand the immeasurable weight of the whole Pacific Ocean bearing down on her, but grow beneath it and produce the great web of life.

Hawaii is a land of rhythms:  an accelerated cycle of birth and death as her isles stretch desperately above the sea for nothing more than a moment before steadily sinking back beneath the waves from which they were born.  The steady beat of gourd drums echo your footsteps among her isles, usher in the sunrise and mark its set with a few moments of nothing but sound and light, between which their sound reverberates in the steady and ceaseless pounding of waves and the rhythmic stories of the hula dancers.  The wind stirs the lanai every evening.  The rain feeds the land every morning.  The tide goes out, the tide goes in, the moon chases the sun over the open sky every day, and the drums beat out the balanced dance of dark and light.  Her song becomes a part of your own rhythm, unnoticed until you cross the ocean and realize you left the rhythm of the rain and the light and the waves and the tide and the drums and the dancing women behind you, because they stay in Paradise.

Still, maybe Paradise isn’t entirely bordered by water.  Coming home to the mountains and pine trees, to our lovely parks and charming downtown, to the comforting smells of an approaching Autumn, and children anxious to go back to school was another sort of Paradise to me.  Especially with the candle burning on my desk from which I can breathe in the scent of the Hawaiian Breeze these last few days of summer.

Aloha and Mahalo.
~Cassie

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Sunset in my Paradise – Bend, OR, August 24, 2013.

Rock, Ice, Life

Let’s teach our children about the world they live in, about why the Earth looks the way it does, about why different plants grow where they do, and why different animals live where they live.  Let’s teach them about how the forces of nature have created the lands and the seas, and teach them how life is shaped to its landscape.  School will teach them the vocabulary and the process, but the opportunity for inspiration and passion to be ignited, the opportunity for the right teacher to meet the right student under the right circumstances is entirely left up to chance.  Don’t leave this to chance.  Let’s take it upon ourselves as parents to inspire passion for the world we live in.  Let’s give them just a little knowledge while they are gazing in amazement at thunderous mountains and rich verdant valleys.  Doing so will inspire the respect and wonder of nature within.  I can’t express enough how easy it is; all you have to do is talk about it a little, and what a permanent, lasting impression that your passion for the world will have on them.

Let’s get started!  Remember from my Science Friday post that I really like to have a science theme for each vacation.  I use it as a focus, like if they are going to learn just one thing on this trip, this is what it is going to be.  Throughout the journey we continue to revisit the theme as we see examples of it.  The Northwest (Itinerary #2) science theme is… Plate Tectonics!

I’m not gonna lie, that seamed a little anticlimactic.  Still, just wait until you learn how really cool it is!  (Yes, I might be modeling super-uncool mom enthusiasm here.)  I’ve also listed some more opportunities to point out unique ecosystems during the second half of the trip, using the vocabulary we discussed in the Science Friday post I prepared for Itinerary #1.  I chose this theme because the first half of the trip involves travelling up the beautiful Cascade Mountain Range, a range of mountainous volcanoes that were created by shifting of the Earth’s plates.  Our trip theme of plate tectonics gives us the opportunity to talk the kids about why the continents look the way they do and a whole lot of opportunities for them to see the evidence themselves.  I do have a very colorful powerpoint posted on plate tectonics here on my old teacher website.   However, allow me to give you a very brief explanation of the scientific theory for our purposes.

Plate Tectonics explains the large scale movement and change of shape in Earth’s plates.  The most superficial layer of the Earth is called the Lithosphere, and is composed of a very thin outer layer of mantle and the entire Earth’s crust.  The lithosphere is not one single large piece, but is actually broken into about 15 different pieces that we call plates, which can move and float across the mantle underneath them.  There are three types of boundaries between these plates and their movement gives texture to the surface of the Earth.  First, boundaries can diverge, where two plates are actually moving away from each other, like in the Red Sea.  Second, two plates can simply slide past each other as in the San Andreas Fault, which is called a transform boundary.  Third, two plates can converge where two neighboring plates collide.  If two continental plates collide, the edges will crumple and create folded mountain ranges, as in the Himalayan Mountains.  If two oceanic plates collide, one plate will subduct under another and magma will rise to the surface forming Island arcs.  Japan is an example of this.  Finally, if an ocean plate collides with a continental plate it will create a subduction zone where the ocean plate sinks underneath the less dense continental plate, and volcanic mountains will form as magma rises to the surface through the continental crust.  This last example is what formed the Cascade Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest, which you will be hiking across throughout your Northwest Adventure!

Below are listed ways to make the science accessible to your children as you explore the National Parks on the Northwest Itinerary.  Good luck and have fun while you are learning!

Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • As the name implies, show the kids the volcanoes of Lassen!  All four types of volcanoes found in the world are represented in Lassen – shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome.  Although there have not been any recent volcanic eruptions, there are steam vents, boiling springs, and bubbling mudpots that are currently active and accessible to visitors.  Check out the Lassen NPS science page for more info before you leave, and ask the rangers at the visitor center where you can go to explore each type!
  • Make sure the kids feel the rocks!  All the rocks in Lassen originated from volcanoes.  Have the kids try to identify the different examples of pumice, basalt, and other rocks as you hike around the park.  Study different rock types at the visitor center before you head out!

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2010, Lassen Volcanic National Park – Kids climbing up a boulder blown off of Lassen Peak in the 1915 Eruption

Crater Lake National Park

  • Many children think that Crater Lake was formed from a crater hitting the Earth, but of course it was not.  The great Mt. Mazama was a volcano formed of succeeding eruptions that continued for over half a million years!  The last eruption blew so much material out of the top that everything left behind settled into a deep, bowl-shaped depression called a caldera.  Over the centuries this caldera filled with rain water and snow melt to form what is now the deepest lake in the United States, Crater Lake!  While you are walking around the rim trail and gazing at the exquisite views, talk to the kids about how this lake is different from other lakes they’ve seen.
  • Follow the paved pathway from the Rim Visitor Center to the Sinnott Memorial Overlook.  I think this is the best exhibit in the park!  Not only does it have an awesome kid-friendly video showing the growth of Mt. Mazama and the events that lead to the formation of Crater Lake, but it also has amazing exhibits on the Ring of Fire.  The Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped outline of the Pacific Ocean where much of the worlds volcanic and earthquake activity occur as a result of the movement between  tectonic plate boundaries.  The volcanoes associated with the Cascade Mountain Range are a part of the Ring of Fire.

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2010, Crater Lake National Park – Clemans Crew on the rim of Crater Lake.

Mt. Rainier National Park

  • Mt. Rainier is the highest volcano in the Cascade Range and the 2nd most active, after Mt. St. Helens, experiencing about 20 small earthquakes a year.  Use the information at the visitor centers to teach the kids about how we study volcano’s, specifically all the research on the seismic activity of Mt. Rainier.  Have them look at the large relief map and brainstorm how they think the surrounding communities would be effected should the volcano explode in the future.
  • There are 25 named glaciers on Mt. Rainier.  It is the largest glacial system on a single mountain in the United States outside of Alaska.  A glacier is a sheet of slowly moving rock and ice.  They are formed when the snow built up in the winter doesn’t completely melt in the summer, and then gets compacted into ice as more snow is accumulated in the following seasons.  Before you visit, have the kids watch this really excellent video that gives information on how and why scientists monitor the glaciers so closely.  Almost all the hikes in Mt. Rainier give you breathtaking views of one of its many glaciers.
  • The rivers formed on Mt. Rainier are shallow, wide, and full of all kinds of rocks and boulders to climb around on.  This is because the rivers are formed from the runoff of melting glaciers.  When the glaciers melt, they release huge amounts of rock that were trapped in the ice into the river beds, where it is gradually tumbled downstream.  This gradual build-up of rock in the park’s riverbeds is called aggradation, and it causes the glacial riverbeds to be wide and rocky.  While you are out hiking with the kids, ask them why these rivers look so different from other ones they’ve seen, and try to guide them towards some of these answers!

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Climbing around the aggradation.

North Cascades National Park

  • Though these mountains are not volcanic, the shape of them mountains is partly attributed to the movement of the many glaciers in the region.  As the glaciers move, they slowly gouge out huge rifts in the land, and scrape along the rock carving the deep valleys.  As you are standing at viewpoints around the park, have the kids try to identify some valleys that look like they have been carved out by a moving glacier.
  • The North Cascades are home to tremendous biodiversity, a word that describes the variation of life within a region.  Its ecosystems range from wetlands and marshes to high alpine meadows, housing a huge variety of habitats within.  This page gives you a list of hikes to do within different life zones of the park.  Make plans to take the kids to an old-growth forest or follow the Cascade Pass Trail to the Alpine ecosystems in the park.

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2010, North Cascades National Park – Diablo Lake from the top of Thunder Knob Trail

Olympic National Park

  • The landscape and diverse ecosystems at the Olympics makes it one of my favorite parks!  The benches and trails at Hurricane Ridge give you the highest and best views of the magnificent Olympics!  See if you can spot Mt. Olympus!  Below the glacial-topped peaks you’ll see scattered alpine meadows and lakes.  Point out the treeline to the kids and explain why this divides the alpine meadows from the sub-alpine forests.  Why can’t the trees grow at a higher elevation?  What does having the trees there allow (and not-allow) to grow?  Have the kids try to identify the living and nonliving factors that contribute to the different ecosystems found in the mountains.  Another interesting thing to point out is that these mountains are also not volcanic in nature, but were born in the sea and uplifted and shaped over millions of years!
  • The Olympics are home to some incredible forests!  This page describes five different forest ecosystems within the Olympics.  Research some species that are indicators of each forest type and while you are hiking around try to have the kids find those species of plants and identify what type of forest they are in!  My favorite teaching experience at Olympic N.P. was at the Hoh Rainforest.  The Sitka Spruce is an indicator species for the Northwest temperate rainforest, which means that unless that tree is growing there, it cannot be identified as the rainforest.  These large, majestic trees dominate the landscape, as do nurse logs.  Nurse logs are found lying on the forest floor and as they decay they grow more trees where seeds have germinated on them.  After the nurse logs rots away, you’ll see a colonnade, or a row of trees that sprouted together on the nurse log.
  • The precious piece of wilderness along the Olympic coastline is full of coastal forests, rocky outlets, sea stacks, beaches, and tidepools stacked with life.   In one tidepool you could see hundreds of animals!  Let the kids walk around each of these different ecosystems along the coastline and get them thinking about the great biodiversity that is sheltered by this land.  Have each of them stand in a different spot and without moving name or point to all the different species of life they can see at that moment.  Be ready to be amazed!

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2010, Olympic National Park – A colonnade in the Hoh Rainforest.

Redwoods National Park

  • The Redwoods provide a great opportunity to talk with the kids about the importance of conservation.  Today, there is only about 4% left of old-growth redwood forest that used to cover two million acres in North America.  Go to the visitor center and talk to the kids about the difference between human consumption and conservation.  Ask them what they think is necessary consumption and ask them ways that they think we can protect what remains of this majestic forest.
  • Since the trees are the highlight in this park, take the time to teach them a little about them!  This is another great place to study populations.  Ask the kids what factors they think contribute to the trees growing so tall (some reaching 360 ft!) or living so long (some live to 2000 years old!)?  Their resistance to insect and fire damage are important ones, as well as their ability to use both sexual and asexual reproduction aid in their survival.  They also live in a richly populated forest with complex soils, and the dense coastal fog that settles in the forest during the summer months provide water for survival.
  • In order to relate the Redwoods back to our geology theme, remind the kids that this park is located about 100 miles from where three different tectonic plates are joined.  The shifting and sliding between these plates creates more earthquakes in the this region of California than any other area of the United States.

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2010, Redwood National Park – The trees, the fog, the kids. Love.

So, I realize this was a lot of science for one day but I wanted to get all the science stuff for Itinerary #2 posted at once!  We are very excited to be leaving on our 5th annual summer road trip tomorrow!  If I can find the time to blog while travelling then I will, otherwise I’ll report back at the end of August.

Happy Trails!
~Cassie

Tripping towards Self-Reliance

Sometimes I think that despite having the best intentions, we do too much for our kids.  I know I do.  Naturally, we want to see them succeed in school, athletics, music, or whatever else our children spend their time doing.  We want them to grow up better than we did, and to see them become productive citizens.  However, not only do we shop, cook, and clean for them, plan their activities, and taxi them around town, we also act as their alarm clocks, monitor their homework, remind them about due dates and practice schedules, organize their backpacks, double-check that they have their gym-shoes, instruments, lunches and school projects for the day, and even arrange their play-dates.  As a teacher I know that parental involvement is the number one indicator of student academic success, but I also know that there are a lot of young adults that struggle when it comes to managing their own responsibilities and successfully working towards a goal.  Although there is a lot of good that comes from parental involvement, we also have to give them the opportunity to be independent and self-reliant.  How do we do this?  Many, many ways, one of which is a “good, old-fashioned, family” road trip.

The trips described in this blog won’t actually be successful if all the work that needs to get done is dependent upon one person.  It’s like the perfect storm of chores.  When you are setting up a new campsite every few days, eating virtually every meal out of a cooler or over a campfire, and living out of your car for a month at a time , everyone has to be responsible not only for themselves, but also for assigned chores within the family.  If the kids don’t work together and take responsibility for their own selves, there are going to be a lot of serious mommy meltdowns.  After being in the car for hours at a time, sometimes fighting the stress of traffic or trying to navigate your way to a new destination, and then finally arriving at a site with a list of chores to get done before the fun begins, you have to have a system in place to make it happen smoothly and calmly.  That system is everyone knowing their jobs for the family, and being responsible enough to get them done without constant reminders, nagging, shouting, and crying.

Below is a list of ways that I expect the kids to be self-reliant on our family road trips:

  1. The kids are responsible for their own clothes bag.  I give the kids a packing list and they lay out everything that is on the list in piles on the floor.   After I quickly check over it and make sure the clothes are appropriate, they pack their bag.  Then for the rest of their trip, they are responsible for their own clothes and re-packing the bag at each stop.  It is no longer my responsibility.
  2. The kids are responsible for their own activity bag.  I allow each child to pack one back-pack with books, toys, coloring, or other activities that they want for the car rides and down time.  I check each backpack before we leave to make sure it is all road-trip appropriate, as I don’t allow electronic games, crayons that could melt, Legos, or any games with small pieces.  For the rest of the trip, they have to keep track of all their own stuff, keep it picked up, and shuttle it from car to tent and back again on their own.
  3. The kids have to keep the car clean.  Everyone is responsible for their own space and their own activity bag.  This means keeping track of their own stuff, picking up any trash in their area, and not invading the space of others.
  4. The kids have to help set-up camp.  We have setting up camp down to a science, and can generally get the whole thing done in less than 30 minutes.  Upon arrival, two or three of us lay out the tarp and set up the tent.  The other two clean the trash out the car, pick up anything that stills needs to be put away from the drive, and start pulling out camp chairs and coolers from the car.  After the tent is up, Aubrey usually goes inside to organize sleeping spaces,  while the twins run back and forth between the car and the tent carrying the mats, bedrolls, sleeping bags, and pillows that I pull out of the Yakima.  Once everything is inside the tent, the kids finish organizing it and I have time to re-organize any driving directions I had out and start reviewing the information I need for our new location.
  5. The kids have to help with meals.  They can collect firewood, prepare vegetables, and pull supplies out the cooler and boxes.  After eating they have to clean their own dishes and utensils, and help put away other supplies.
  6. The kids carry what they need for all hikes and outings.    Each kid has their own Camelback that is large enough to carry enough water for them on long hikes and has zippered storage compartments.  In the storage compartments I’ve put a whistle, small first aid package, sunscreen, and chapstick.  They can also carry their own snacks if desired, but I usually carry any picnic snacks in my camelback.
  7. The kids have to help break-down camp.  Packing up the campsite will take longer than setting it up.  We can usually have it done in 45 minutes if everyone helps.  Each kid packs his/her clothing bag, rolls up the yoga mat and sleeping bag, and sets everything they used on the picnic table, ready to be loaded into the car.  Once everything is out of the tent, Aubrey (or Andy) and I take it down and pack it up.  During this time, the kids are folding up the camp chairs, picking up trash, and putting any other gear or toys away. The kids bring me all the stuff that goes into the Yakima while I pack it away.  Then they haul in the coolers, food box, and pack the trunk.

It sounds like a lot written out like this, but once you establish expectations with the kids, and everyone sees each other working hard and doing their chores, they will settle in, work together, and get it done quite quickly.  They might even have some fun.  Getting to a new campsite is always exciting for us and we are all usually in a good mood.  The kids are finally freed from the car and I let them run around for a few minutes to explore and burn off a little energy before we set up camp.  It amazes me that the kids can find ways to make the chores fun too.  For example, they actually fight for the job of setting up the tent so they can try out silly sleeping arrangements and change who is sleeping next to whom.

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2009, Fernwood Campground – I couldn’t resist posting this darling oldie of the kids “setting up the tent.”

Ultimately, through all of the work and the shared responsibilities, the kids naturally feel more involved in the success of the family, and more responsible for themselves.  They learn to trust and depend on themselves, and that’s a lesson that can’t be learned through any other method than experience.  When you finally make it to that elusive hotel night, and you can take a long, hot shower, enjoy a soft bed and heavy comforters,  a hot meal that you don’t have to cook and clean up after, their appreciation for the simple pleasures of home suddenly skyrockets. The experiences of these long trips teach them self-reliance, but the hard work also teaches them to be really grateful for all the conveniences of home, and that lesson is priceless.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

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2009, Yosemite National Park – Killer firewood haul.  Great job kids!

The Fun Fund Jar

Our summer is in full swing with lots of hiking and river floating, beach days, summer festivals, Musical Mondays, farmers markets, waffle breakfasts, and of course… lemonade stands!

lemonade stand

The kids have finally realized that we only have about two weeks left before our summer vacation and they are suddenly budding little capitalists.  There is not a chore on the planet that they wouldn’t do right now for an extra buck or two.  Seriously.  All for a little thing called the Fun Fund Jar.

About five years ago I decided I was done listening to the continuous requests for gifts, tshirts, treats, toys, and other souvenirs while we travel.   I mean seriously, how many times can one kid ask for the same thing?  A lot, apparently.  So naturally I decided it was time to do something about it, and drank a jug of wine.  No really, I did.  For good purpose though:  we rinsed it out, the kids decorated it with all kinds of trip-related stickers that we picked up from a scrapbooking store, and we implemented the Fun Fund Jar strategy.  All year long, the kids find ways to contribute to the Fun Fund.   Their extra chore money and lemonade stand profits go towards the jar, we use it as a “loose change” jar, and as a “bad word” jar, so my husband and I get to contribute fairly regularly as well.    Then each summer we count it up, cash it in, and split it evenly between all three kids.   This is the only “spending” money we give them for the trips.  They are each responsible for handling their share throughout the whole vacation, and they can spend it on anything they want, but when its gone, its gone, and they can’t ask me for anything else.

Fun Fund

The jar has worked wonders.  I think each year the kids have actually come home with leftover money to start the next years fund.  They are so much more conservative in regards to picking out the things they want to spend money on when it is their own!   It has taught them to make thoughtful  decisions about spending and not to spend everything they have at the first stop, not to mention that we have completely eliminated all the little “can I have this” requests.  Whether it is a visitor center, museum gift shop, or truck stop, they bring in their envelopes and decide their own purchases.  I also really like that this jar gives them an opportunity to save spending money for their vacations that is separate then what they are saving in their bank accounts.  The kids aren’t spending money they’ve received for birthdays, or earned for grades or from working.

That’s it for today!  I feel like I’m getting a little behind in my posting with so much going on throughout the summer, but there is a lot in the works!  I hope all of you are enjoying a great summer too.

Happy Trails!
~Cassie

Itinerary #2 is Published!

I’m excited to be publishing my 1oth post!  This website has been up for almost 2 months and I really want to thank all of you who have encouraged me on this project, helped me get more exposure for the blog, and especially those 20 people who have become official followers!

Today I’m publishing the itinerary for our Northwest Road Trip, which was a truly amazing family adventure.  It is one of our all-time favorite vacations and even inspired our move to the Pacific Northwest.  We saw  6 National Parks, 2 National Historic Parks, 5 State parks, and plenty of volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, beaches, islands, and even a rainforest.  I will get the background and science advice to go with it posted as soon as possible.  For now, just take a look and perhaps even generate some ideas for your next big family adventure.  You can find Itinerary #2 posted here, towards the bottom of the Itineraries Page.

Hope everyone had a great Independence Day and is enjoying a beautiful summer!

Happy Trails!
~Cassie

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

~John Muir

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Mt. Rainier National Park, 2010 – Finishing another great hike!

Thirteen Summers

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien
 

This Spring I had the pleasure of reading The Hobbit to my kids and ever since we’ve all been a little more Tolkien crazy than is strictly necessary, but I find this riddle a good introduction to today’s post.  Do you know the answer?   It is our most precious and prevalent resource, our greatest opportunity, and our greatest enemy.

Time.

Today I’m here to argue that time, not money, is the limiting factor to travel.  Time is finite.  We cannot get more hours in a day, or more days in a year.  We can’t skip forward, and we can’t turn it back.  The expeditious passing of Time surprises every parent, like the shock of another school year or holiday season at our doorstep, or the moment you look at your child and realize that ‘suddenly’ he’s not a baby (toddler, child) anymore.  We have one chance, one infinitesimal moment in time, to watch not just their milestone moments, but every single one in between.  Our time with the kids is fleeting, a collection of quick moments in the great breath of life, and it is our responsibility as parents to make sure they aren’t wasted.

If by some chance this blog has reached you and peaked your interest in travelling with your kids to the National Parks, then I’d like to focus on what is probably your biggest obstacle:  simply finding the time.  As Americans we all work, a lot, our kids are very busy, and all too often we face a positive avalanche of responsibilities to handle.  I’ve seen To Do lists that rival the Democratic National Agenda!  (My own included.)  So much of our “time off” is already filled with chores before we can even stop and think about what we want to do.  But, think about how quickly the time has already passed, and how much you have left to achieve on your bucket list of goals.  Have you looked at the list of parks on my Countdown page?  How many do you want to explore?  Five?  Twenty?  All fifty-nine?  Take a moment and think about exactly how much time you have with them for future trips.  The itineraries I publish are geared towards travelling with school-age children.  No one really wants to travel too long on the road with an infant or toddler.  Pre-school is a perfect time to fit in short but magical trips to places like Disneyland.  Also, although I know there can be benefits to travelling during the school year, I would never voluntarily plan a trip during a time that would take them out of the classroom, and if you save school breaks and long holiday weekends for visiting family members and exploring some favorite local jaunts, you’re left with 13 summers.

Thirteen summers between the day they finish Kindergarten until the day you drive them to their first day of college.  Thirteen summers to teach them things they can’t learn in school.  Thirteen summers to take them to a new place in the country and show them the world they live in.  Thirteen opportunities to model what you think is the most important way to use your precious time.  Thirteen chances to bring an adventure into their lives.  Thirteen possibilities for amazing, life-changing, attitude-changing vacations.  Thirteen moments to make the decision to go.  When you stop and think about how fast your kids grow, how quickly time passes, thirteen summers is not very much time.  We must treat it as the precious resource it is, and fight the hard fight to get as much out of it as we can.

Have I mentioned yet that between my three kids, we are involved with five different ball teams?  My husband and I have attended almost 120 ball games this Spring, plus practices.  I admit – that is crazy!  If I’m not careful, lessons, camps, practices, and tournaments could take over the entire summer too.  I love that my kids are at the ages where they want to be part of teams, and that they are working towards goals together, but each year I have to stop everything and just say Enough.  The only way to start carving out time in your schedule, is to start saying No.  It’s not easy to fit in a vacation every summer, much less a month-long one.  All too often we actually feel guilty for taking a vacation with our families while shelving all other responsibilities.  Determining the start and end dates of the trip is the hardest part of planning, but it has to be your first step.   Even if after all your efforts you can only secure a week of two, you are still teaching your kids something invaluable:  that the thing you want most to do with your extra time is to spend it with them,  away from all that other stuff,  sharing new experiences together, learning together, and being inspired together as you experience the remarkable, majestic beauty of this gorgeous country.

Let’s talk about work.  I was fortunate enough to be a teacher when I started taking long trips during the summer.  Though teachers do work a lot over the summer, I did have the freedom to leave for an extended road trip.  Now my husband and I are small business owners, so again, we are grateful to have the freedom to make our own schedule.  However, we do work through our trips.  Payroll must be made, fires must be put out, phone calls and emails must be returned.   Free WiFi is available at almost all KOA’s, hotels, and Starbucks,  and a pit-stop at a coffee shop is usually well-received by everyone.   A big point of these trips is to get away from technology, but if the only way to take them is to do some work now and then, then find a hotspot and plug in that laptop for a few hours!

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Great Falls KOA, 2012 – Everyone getting some work done at a campsite in Montana.

So, say you are not a teacher, or a business owner, or otherwise able to simply re-arrange your schedule to take off for a long summer trip.  What can you do?   I understand how much harder it is going to be to travel with your family, but unfortunately we all have the same 13 summers, time doesn’t make exceptions or excuses.   If you make the decision now to travel next year, what are some things you can do to start collecting that precious time off?  Here are some places to start:

  1. Talk with your employers.  Let them know what you plan to do each summer, and how very important it is to you.  They may just be inspired and willing to help!  Perhaps they would allow you to pick up extra shifts at different times throughout the year, or allow you to telecommute some of the days.  Asking them can never hurt if it is done respectfully and knowledgeably.  The thing is, the only way to create a culture of change in corporate America is to start demanding it.  Ask for more maternity leave, paternity leave, vacation time, and sick time while your kids are growing.  So often I hear teachers being blamed for lethargic, unmotivated, and troubled youth.  But, it is the parents responsibility for fostering a healthy attitude and outlook in our kids.  The only way we can do this is to spend time with them.  A lot of time.  It’s time for the workforce to change.  With all our advances in technology, employers could offer a certain number of telecommuting days and not suffer in productivity.  There are already examples of companies that are offering unlimited vacation days, and it is working.   I realize I’m digressing here and I could write an entire blog post on this topic alone, but I just hope that both employers and employees realize that parents have the right to take time off to raise healthy children in healthy families.
  2. Obviously save every extra vacation and sick day that you can, and then use them all at once during the summer.  Some of us receive so much vacation time that we don’t even use it all over the course of a year and we get these huge roll-over accounts of unused sick and vacation time.  I used to do it!  Why?  What are we saving it for?  Use all your time, every year.  We can never, ever, get the time missed with our kids back again.
  3. Ask grandparents or other family members to help when the kids have a school holiday that you don’t have off.  You can also use extended day programs at the school or extracurricular day camps to keep kids busy when you are trying not to leave work.
  4. Adjust the length of time you spend in any given region of the U.S.  I’ve been averaging about 4-5 national parks per trip because I schedule in a lot of extra stops at other places along the way.  For example, we made the drive to South Dakota to see Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks, but  we also saw the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, the Crazy Horse memorial, Custer State Park, the Mammoth Site, and Wounded Knee.  I think every area of the country has a valuable lesson to teach about natural history, cultural history, biology, and geology.  If you can, take the time with your family to see it when you’re in the area.  However, if you are looking for ways to cut time and get to more parks, then just drive right on through!
  5. If you’re married or in an amicable co-parenting arrangement, think about staggering your vacation time.  If you don’t actually have a lot of vacation time each then this might be the best use of it once every few years or so.  Think about it.  If you each can get close to 10 days, you could start the trip on a weekend, and spend the first stop of the trip together, then one spouse goes back to work, the other continues on with the road trip.  When it’s time for the vacationing spouse to return to work, you can meet up at a mid-way point, spend a couple days together as the whole family, then he or she heads back to work while the other one finishes the last half of the trip.   It would take extra coordination and planning, but this way the kids could fit in a much longer trip during the summer, and get to spend time with each parent.  Meanwhile, the parent that has a week of work with the house to him or herself in the evenings is, I’m positive, not entirely unhappy.  Fifteen years into my own marriage with three active kids and a joint business, a week with the house to myself at night would be nothing less than luxury.  One other cost benefit to this is that you won’t have to pay for pet boarding or for house sitters to take care of your dogs and cats as someone will be home.
  6. If you’re a single parent, first of all,  I applaud you.  My mother was a single parent of four, and I understand the effort it takes.  I do hope you have realized by now that you can do these trips totally on your own.  I’ve done it and greatly enjoyed it.   However, the time issues will be an even bigger obstacle for you.  As a single parent you have to use up more of your sick and vacation time during the year for things like doctor appointments, school programs, and the stomach flu.  I understand this, and I think the most important thing you can do for yourself is not feel guilty about the amount of time you’ve saved for your summer vacation.  Do the best you can, and then work with the days you have.   If you can only do a seven day trip each summer, then enjoy it!  At least it’s seven days where you’re out exploring new areas of the country, making memories together, and getting to know each other a little better.  When they are older, you’re kids will remember that even though you only had one week of vacation each year, you spent it out on a road trip together, camping in the woods, not watching TV.  You may not fit in every park and everything you want to see, but you can at least expose the kids to a different area of the country each year, creating priceless memories along the way.  And if the most you’ve done is inspire them to take their own kids on trips to our parks, then I think you’ve succeeded.

Well, my family is waiting for me to put the computer away so we can head out for our next softball tournament.  Happy First Day of Summer by the way!  Can you believe it’s already here?

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

The Trip Binder

I’m gearing up to publish Itinerary #2 soon, but there are just a couple more things I want to get posted before doing so.  Today is about the all-important Trip Binder.  This idea is a consequence of my obsessive need to get these trips as organized as possible before taking off for weeks on end with three kids and a car stuffed full of supplies.  They keep everything in one place… itinerary, maps, reservation confirmations, and all the stuff we collect along the way.   Make sure to have your trip binder organized and ready before you leave on your vacation, and keep it close to you the whole way through!  I keep mine lodged right between the driver and passenger seats throughout the trip.

To get started, purchase one 2-inch 3-ring binder, a set of dividers, and a package of transparent sheet protectors.  First, print out a final copy of your itinerary to put in the book.  You can either place it inside the transparent front cover, or put it in a sheet protector as the first page in the binder.  If you’ve made a calendar (which sometimes helps on long trips), you can also print that out and place it inside the front or back cover.

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Next, you are going to label your dividers.  I don’t make a divider for every day, but rather for every major destination.  This way each divider holds all information necessary for a few days at a time.  For example, one section might be Crater Lake National Park and hold all information for Crater Lake and your visit to nearby Bend.  Another section might be Portland, and hold everything related to your plans in the city.  Create your sections in ways that make sense to you, but make sure to line them up in chronological order of your trip!

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Next start adding in your pages.  Here is a list (in order) of things I print out, 3-hole punch, and place in the binder under the appropriate divider:

  • A copy of your campground or hotel reservation so you always have proof on-hand that a reservation was made, and so that you have any posted instructions for arrival at your fingertips.
  • Directions for every drive.  I carry a road map in the car and have my phone, so this might seem redundant, but you never know when you might need them.  I still use them to cross-reference where the navigator on my phone is sending me and to drive into remote areas where my phone doesn’t always have service.  Plus your navigation devices might send you to the wrong area in the same park, so you want directions that you’ve looked at and confirmed on hand before you leave on your trip!
  • Safety information for each area you are visiting.  Make sure to look online and see if there are any posted articles about road construction or animal sightings that might influence your activities.   A lot of park websites will have handouts posted for ongoing safety issues at their park.  I often print these out and have them in the binder so I can talk to the kids about them when we are at the campsite.
  • Printed tickets for any activity for which you’ve made reservations.  I’ve pre-purchased and printed tickets out for museums, zoos, rodeos, festivals, ferry crossings, historical tours, and rafting excursions.  It’s easiest to put these in a page protector and insert into the binder.
  • Brochures, day hike lists, and maps of the specific area you will be.  Spend time researching each area online before you leave and print out the important information about things you want to do.  I love having  a list of popular day hikes for each national park we are visiting in my binder.
  • Any interesting historical or scientific information that you definitely want to share with your family while you are out.  If you can’t find a printable handout, just copy info to a word document, print it out, and stick it in your binder!  It all makes for good reading material while you are driving.  Well, not for you, obviously, but for the people in the car who aren’t driving.
  • Make sure to insert at least one extra (empty) page protector into the binder for each divider section.  I use this to store the maps, postcards, receipts, stickers, park literature, brochures, parking tickets, and other small “souvenirs” we collect a long the way.  It’s great to have one place to put all that stuff, or your car becomes cluttered with paper very quickly.

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The best part of all?  When you arrive home, exhausted, and have the first day of school staring straight at you, you can rest easy knowing your ‘scrapbooking’ for the trip is basically done.  Everything is already in one place, in the order that you did it, complete with not only your plans, but all the bits and pieces you collected along the way.   If you’re like me and hate to scrapbook, then feel comfortable shelving these little binders away knowing that the job is done and neatly organized.  However, if you love to scrapbook, you can still shelve the binder away knowing that when you find the time to start the project, everything you need is there waiting for you to make something creative and beautiful with it.

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I hope I’ve sold you on the Trip Binder concept.  When you are living out of your car for thirty days, I think it is very important that you have everything you might need at your fingertips.  Not only does it minimize potentially dangerous distractions while you are driving, but it also makes it a lot easier to keep track of all the little things related to your trip, and when you’re dog tired and have a car full of restless kids, making everything as easy as possible is just a part of good planning.

That’s it for today!  I hope everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors this weekend!

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

Guide for Itinerary #1

This post is long, but is written as a guided companion to Itinerary #1, Southern California.  This and future “guides” are where I’m going to put all the extra suggestions and experiences about our trips so that the posted itineraries stay very concise and useable when you download them.   This also might partly be considered a ‘travelogue’ and I apologize for that, but it’s hard to write about the places you’ve been without including a few stories.  Hope you enjoy!

DAY 1-2:  BEGINNINGS
You might think that the desert is boring or that Joshua Tree is an unnecessary, out-of-the way stop on your trip and succumb to the rationality that an extra day at Yosemite instead of Joshua Tree would be well spent.  Don’t skip Joshua Tree.   This is an absolute jewel of a park, and after being in the dark forests of Sequoia and the shaded waterfalls of Yosemite, you’ll appreciate the memories of being baked toasty warm underneath the hot California sun of Joshua tree.  My kids ran all over the parks, climbing boulders and dodging cacti as they raced along trails.  The Joshua Trees look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book and fascinate adults and children of all ages.  Since they were raised in the desert, I was worried that Joshua Tree wouldn’t hold that much interest for them, but as we wound our way northward through the park, stopping off at places like the Cholla Garden and Jumbo Rocks, I began to realize that this was something different and special.  There were no car horns or trash, not too many people, and no buildings in site.  It was just a simple, fragrant, stark landscape that enveloped you in the dry warm heat of summer.  Good thing we’d seen National Treasure the week before we left and the kids were stomping around every trail shouting “Boom, Boom, Firepower!” or the silence would have become positively unnerving.

I have to admit that for our very first picnic, on our very first day, of our very first trip, I kind of over-did it.  Surprising, I know.  After a 3 hour car ride to get there and our first nature walk checked off, we sat down on a shaded concrete picnic table and I pulled out the following:  home-made hummus, huge stack of cut, fresh vegetables, yogurt for each, apple slices for each, string cheese for each, bread, turkey, cheese and all the sandwich fixings, peanut butter and jelly for my “finicky” eater, and a jello for dessert.  I think they each ate half a sandwich and a couple pieces of celery, and did not even touch the awful-tasting home-made hummus which I carried all over California and then dumped somewhere along the coastline. It was a good lesson for me in portioning food for the trips, and the kids sure enjoyed a good laugh at my expense.  Nothing like starting out with a little bit of funny!

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Joshua Tree National Park, 2009 – Our very first picnic on our very first trip.

Good thing I drove out of Joshua Tree feeling like I just left a desert nature spa, as I ended up needing the calming boost to get us up to our campground in San Bernardino.  I was not familiar with the highways of Southern California and was not expecting the winding zigzag of a drive up a mountainside to Dogwood Campground.  I actually thought I was making it easy by picking a campground on the outskirts of L.A.!   Anyway, I thought seriously about advising you to pick another campground to avoid the drive up the mountain, but in the end decided against it.  If you haven’t been up there, it really is a beautiful part of this region, and you should see it.  Plus, having a campground reserved at the top of the pass allows you easy access to beautiful Lake Gregory the next day, and if you don’t live in or near Los Angeles, when are you ever going to make the effort to get up into those mountains?  My advice is to go forth and conquer this little climb, enjoy your rest at the top, and give your kids a sand bucket in case they need to throw up.

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2009 – Arwen surviving the drive up the San Bernardino Mountains

Although we’d always been an active outdoor family, for the past ten years we’d only been camping with my husband along, which means that we designated jobs.   Perhaps this doesn’t paint me as much of a feminist, but when we do divide up jobs, I invariable leave any tasks involving the car, firewood, or propane to him.  Believe it or not, I had never actually lit a Coleman lantern before this first night in the woods, camping by myself.  I was not worried about this, but that was before my first day of the trip.  After being up all night packing the car, a very early morning drive to California, hiking through Joshua Tree, hauling coolers, kids, and gear in and out of the car, a very scary and nerve-wracking drive up into the San Bernadino mountains, and a brief search for our campground, I was emotionally depleted.  I reached the campsite and put on a brave happy face for the kids and got them excited about setting up our tent, but really I was on the verge of tears and just needed a nap.  Then I had to figure out the stupid Coleman lantern and mantles.  What the heck are mantles?  No one told me that the first time you light them they will catch on fire.  Like actual fire.  I was terrified that I was doing something wrong and that I was going to create some sort of explosion.  Also, I couldn’t get the lights to turn off in the car and I began freaking out that my battery was going to quit working.  Also?  I didn’t have enough kindling to get a fire going from the large split logs that we bought from the campground host.  So, I did what any weary woman does when she needs to vent and called my poor husband to whine.  I know that doesn’t paint a pretty picture of me, but there really is no other way to put it.   Eventually, I lit the lanterns without blowing up the campground.  I figured out that one of the sliding door on the minivan wasn’t shutting properly and therefore leaving the car light on.  I put Aubrey in charge of organizing our sleeping arrangement in the tent and sent the little ones out to gather small branches for our fire kindling.  We figured it out, and even managed to eat our first hot dogs before the sun set.  Day One Accomplished.  The lesson here?  You are going to have some very, VERY, tired moments.  But, don’t give up on the idea.  These tired moments are when the magic happens.  When everyone suddenly pitches in and becomes a team.  When your trip turns into a real-live adventure.

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San Bernardino National Forest, 2009 – Dogwood Campground

The time spent at Lake Gregory was probably too short, but it was enough of a break for us to relax and have some fun before the long drive to Sequoia.  The kids went down the waterslide and enjoyed playing on the beach. They had a water toy rental shop and we decided to try out the giant-wheeled water-tricycles!   I had not expected them to be such a hit, but the kids spent an hour on them paddling around the lake!  So fun!  Lesson learned:  No matter how much you plan, unique opportunities will always pop up when you least expect it, and usually they make some of the best memories.

DAY 3-4:  GIANT FOREST
The last hour of our long drive up to Sequoia National Park was a an uphill winding climb while dodging RV’s through hair pin turns and countless switchbacks.  I still remember the moment we arrived in the Giant Forest as one of my most cherished memories of the trip.  It was  late enough in the day that the sun had just started to set, casting shadows all over the roads.  The trees dominated every view of the landscape, blocking the sun from view and lording over the forest floor, immediately transferring you into their world.   These giant organisms, the largest on Earth, towered over the road like giant’s on a mountain, their massive car-sized trunks crowd your window, each seemingly larger than the last, and inspire a true feeling of majesty.  The smell of dirt and damp pine needles creeps into the car, and the winding road and lush green bushes block any other traffic from view, so that your isolation increases the further you drive in and you know you’ve entered their beautiful, natural, eternal world that is untouched by the brief life of man.  This feeling of awe and beauty and power stayed with me the entire time we were in this beautiful place.  The Sequoia’s have such a solid, permanent presence that it’s difficult to imagine them ever being gone.

We arrived in Lodgpole campground at dusk.  It was mostly empty, quiet, and very cold!  Thankfully, we had taken some of the kindling we found in San Bernardino so that we could make a fire right away and not have to go purchase wood.  After another big drive, it was nice to just make some hot chocolate and roast hot dogs and marshmallows.  Be prepared for cold, damp weather.  I advise having a tarp to go under the tent and a rain cover to go over it to protect from the dampness.

The next morning is a great one to sleep in and have a relaxing camp breakfast, maybe even pancakes.  The hikes listed on the itinerary for this morning will make for very relaxing and pleasant walks through the Giant Forest.  You’ll find the huge Sugar Pinecones that I talked about in my Science Friday post, and the kids can see how far they can wrap their arms around the massive trees.  For our afternoon hike, we chose the Topokah Valley trail.  It was 3.5 miles round trip through an old-growth forest to Topokah Valley Falls.  The creeks and waterfalls along the way were beautiful, and refreshing if anyone wants to jump in.  We also saw lots of wildflowers and a family of deer followed along next to us for about a quarter mile. It was a beautiful hike, and we arrived back in the late afternoon with enough time to just relax and enjoy the last hours of daylight at the campsite.

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Sequoia National Park, 2009 – Sherman Tree Trail

The next day we drove over to Kings Canyon National Park.  Make sure to walk the Grant Tree trail to see our Nation’s official Christmas Tree!  The rangers at the visitor center should be able to guide you towards a nice afternoon hike.  I remember the drive between Sequoia and Kings Canyon being really gorgeous, and now I hear certain songs that come up on our iPod road trip playlist that still take me back to that day.  (Madonna!)  Enjoy your last afternoon at Sequoia, they have great laundry facilities, showers, and ice cream at the market.  A good place to take a rest and get cleaned up.  Also, don’t forget to have the kids write about the things they’ve seen so far in the their journals on the way up to Yosemite the next morning.

DAY 5-6: TO BE TOURISTS OR NOT TO BE
Yosemite attracts attention.  As explained in my About page, it’s the park that originally inspired our journey and the one I was most excited to see, but I was not prepared for the crowds.  The infamous drive down into the valley was full of awe-inspiring panoramas that you simply cannot get from a photograph, but the winding road was packed with traffic and you have to be patient to find a parking spot.  Although the traffic makes the already steep and winding drive a little more nerve-racking, it doesn’t take away from the incredible views of Half Dome lording over the valley floor.  Maybe it is cliché, but make the effort to stop, get out of your car, and take a photo.  If this is your one chance to see these infamous views, don’t pass it up.

Yosemite village is congested.  There is just no way around it.  Finding a parking spot will be hard, and finding an open picnic table will be harder.   This is my one memory of the kids eating sandwiches curbside out of the car.  It kind of brought me back to the nostalgic memories of my own youth.  Haha… how different from Day 1!

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Guess what?  The gift shop, visitor center, and campground will be crowded too.  Plan for it and put your patient “I will work extra hard to be nice to everybody” hat on.    For even though its going to be busy, you don’t want to miss exploring the valley floor.  Walk the trails to Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Cooks Meadow, and anything else the visitor center rangers might suggest.    Yosemite Valley may be the “touristy” thing to do in here, but there is a reason it is the most popular area of a popular park.  The views, the waterfalls, the meadows and woods, all are exquisite.  My kids were still young when we did this park, so we stuck to the shorter trails, but if you would like to do the longer trails towards Half Dome or Glacier Point, then I would suggest making reservations for a campsite in Yosemite Valley.  Otherwise, enjoy your beautiful afternoon in the Valley, but then head up to the campground in Hodgdon Meadow on the western edge of the park.  It’s out of the way of the crowds, we had a great time and had plenty of room to for the kids to run around at our campsite, and that evening we went on a very beautiful and peaceful Twilight hike with the campground ranger.

The next morning I suggest packing up and heading over to Hetch Hetchey, located on the western edge of the park.  The O’Shaugnessey Dam offers a spectacular view of the plummeting spillway water and the Tuolumne River below.  Awesome views!  The 5 mile round-trip hike from the dam to Wapama Falls is a perfect challenge for your younger children.  There is very little incline until you are close to the falls, you cross over a few streams a long the way that make perfect rest and picnic stops, and Wapama Falls themselves are amazing!  Which reminds me of a tried and true rule we’ve learned over the years:  a hike to a stellar waterfall, no matter how difficult it is, is always, always, worth it.  Go.  Hike it.  Love it.  The twins still remember this one, four years and many, many hikes later.  Not only because of the waterfall, but because of the amazing feeling of accomplishment they had at five years old.

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Yosemite National Park, 2009 – Kids crossing the bridge at Wapama Falls.

DAY 7-8:  DESERT OASIS
Are you tired yet?  Looking back as I write this I remember the adventure and adrenaline that kept us going, but now it just seems exhausting! Stay with me though, it really is so much fun!  The laughter and smiles of the kids carry you through, and the pace and activity involved in these trips are what make them, well… an adventure!

Make sure you have a campground site reserved at Pinnacles because you will probably be arriving later in the evening.  After your tent is up and the campsite is settled, wash off the dust from your Yosemite hike with a refreshing dip in the campground pool.  In the morning check-in at the visitor center and talk to a ranger about which caves are open for viewing.    The Balconies cave is amazing, but a much longer hike is required to get there which may not be suitable for families with young children, especially during the summer months. When I visit this summer I plan to do the walk from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use area, then do the Bear Gulch Cave loop and walk back.  Make sure to bring plenty of water for each person on your hikes, and bring binoculars for the phenomenal bird sightings!  Also, if your family is into rock-climbing, this is the place to be.  Check with the park rangers at the visitor centers to find out which routes are currently safe and appropriate for your children.

When you leave Pinnacles on Day 7, you only have a short drive to the coast for your night at the hotel!  I actually suggested the Ramada Marina in the itinerary because we had such a phenomenal experience there, and honestly I haven’t felt a more comfortable hotel bed since.  (However, the five previous nights sleeping in a tent may have had something to do with that.)  The night is open!  Enjoy one or two hot showers, go out to dinner, sleep in and send the kids downstairs for their awesome breakfast in the morning.  This is also another good spot for washing any towels or clothes that might need it.

Out of all the museums and zoos and cultural sights in the area, I chose the Monterey Bay Aquarium because it is quite simply, The Best.  This is a must see.  It will be a nice, cool day inside and there are so many amazing animals to observe! I’m sitting here trying to pick our favorite exhibit, and I just can’t… every single one inspires oohs and aaahs from all of us!   The jellyfish, the tide pools, the open ocean, the Sea Otters, the kelp forest.  So much to see and learn!  Did you know that seahorses are the only animal in the kingdom in which the fathers carry the pregnancy?!

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Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2009 – I can’t remember what they were watching at this exhibit, but the universal look of dread on their faces makes me wonder!

On your way to Fernwood Resort, the kids will get their first glimpses of the famous Big Sur coastline!  Fernwood has the option of lodging or camping.  We always camp to save the extra money for excursions and other trip activities, but obviously you can change the itinerary to fit your preferences and book lodging whenever you like!  The campsites here were tucked up nicely against the frolicking Big Sur River, and the kids can wade around or float in rafts in its comfortable shallow waters.  It’s funny, I was so eager to get to our hotel room the night before, but once I was there I felt a little claustrophobic after all the time outdoors.  It was really nice being back at a campground again and between the meandering river, the sand volley ball court, and the friendly neighbors, this campground is a great place to let them just run around and enjoy the outdoors on their own terms!

DAY 9-10:  CALIFORNIA COASTLINE
No trip to Central California is complete without a drive down the California HWY 1 and the  Big Sur Coastline.  Take your time and enjoy the drive, stopping at your leisure to take in all the beautiful views.  We stopped at the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park to hike over to the infamous McKay waterfall.  What a breathtaking site!

If you’ve looked at my itinerary, you might think that the Hearst Castle is such a random place to stop and see, but I thought this was such a unique thing to do on our way back to L.A.  The home is spectacular, and one of only a few American “castles” that they will ever get to see!  We especially liked the dining room which inspired the Great Hall of Hogwarts seen in all the Harry Potter films!  But the priceless collection of sculptures and other artwork are pretty cool too.  The meticulously sculpted gardens and ponds are so gorgeous and fragrant.  The pools were stunning and standing on their decks almost takes you back to another time as the tour guides tell you about the life of this amazing and most influential figure in our history.  Be sure to plan ahead and make reservations for the tour and time that you want!

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Hearst Castle, 2009 – Neptune Pool

The last night of our trip we camped at Sam Simeon State Park and really enjoyed this quiet beach in the late afternoon.  The kids played with seaweed and ran in and out of the waves while I rested in the sand and read a book.  It was the perfect ending.

The next day you have a few options.  The morning will be taken up with the drive into L.A., but then I would suggest getting the kids to one of the really amazing and unique museums there, like the Page Museum at the LaBrea Tar Pits or the Getty Center, which I am really looking forward to seeing this summer.  You could also check out the Venice and Santa Monica beaches if that is more up your alley.  There is also Hollywood, theme parks, zoos, ball games, and gardens.  Whatever you choose, Los Angeles is a great city to end your trip with many amazing options.

We chose to top off our trip with a day at Disneyland since the five year old twins had never been there.  It was hot and we battled the summer lines, but the kids still had a blast!  Whatever you decide to do, I hope that you make some amazing memories and have some wonderful adventures on your California vacation!

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Disneyland, 2009